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College fairs are a great opportunity for students and their families to browse a large number and diverse range of schools in one evening. Fairs are typically large gatherings and most often held in gyms, auditoriums, cafeterias, or even malls. The rooms can be noisy, warm, and over-crowded – but don’t give up! College fairs are an efficient and cost-effective way to “get to know” many schools in a few short hours.

College representatives will tell you that the nature of contact with students at college fairs varies widely. All of us at College Coach could easily spend an hour or two regaling you with stories about our prospective family encounters at college fairs, but you shouldn’t worry excessively about impressing the college representative behind the table. Odds are high that they are in the middle of a two-week work trip, meeting dozens of students. The likelihood of their remembering your full name is slim (unless you ask a phenomenal question; more on that in part two of our guide to college fairs). That said, they will most likely remember your offensive t-shirt, your snide remark to your mother, or the sticky handshake you give them.

Here are a few to hints to master you next college fair:

  1. DO bring a bag for all the material you will collect. You will probably pick up multiple pieces of material from each college. And even if you don’t take any paper, you’ll definitely end up with some sort of cool piece of tchotchke – a squishy mascot, a funky pen, a deflated beach ball, a pocket-sized container of hand sanitizer…all branded with your future college’s logo.
  2. DO consider taking the “divide and conquer” approach. Some of the happiest conversations I’ve had with families at college fairs have been the result of parents and student touring the college fair separately. With this tactic, Mom and Dad get to ask any questions they want sans eye rolling, and son/daughter can dig in without the fear of being steamrolled or interrupted.
  3. DON’T be intimidated by the college representatives standing behind the long rows of tables in their business suits, chugging their bottles of water! They are here for the sole purpose of speaking to you, answering your questions, and laughing at your mom’s bad jokes (if you choose to walk around together, that is).
  4. DO fill out information cards; for many colleges your attendance at a college fairs counts as a “point of contact” in the demonstrated interest game. If you’re really prepared, you will bring pre-printed stickers that contain the following biographical information: full legal name, date of birth, high school name, graduation year, mailing address, e-mail (yours, not your parents’!), and intended major. Doing so allows you to visit more colleges during the allotted time and focus fully on the conversation happening at each rep’s table.
  5. DON’T keep a rep late talking after the official end of the college fair. They most likely have been visiting schools since 7:15am and will be up early for a visit to a school at 7:15am tomorrow – let them go to their hotel, drink water, eat cough drops, and sleep. Be courteous and conscientious.
  6. DO recycle the material from the schools you know you’re not interested in, but do so at home. There’s no reason to keep unwanted college material hanging around your home, cluttering your desk and thought process. But keep in mind, too, that there’s nothing worse as a college rep than walking out of a fair and seeing your business cards and material strewn across the parking lot.

These are the basic tips for (dividing) and conquering the college fair. You can go forth into the vast unknown without any more information and still be relatively well prepared to make the most of the information at your fingertips. But if you’d like a little more help bringing out the best in yourself (and avoiding the worst), come back next week for Part 2 of our guide. We’ll give you all the best ideas for questions to ask (and those awful habits to avoid!).

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Written by Abigail Anderson
Abigail Anderson is a member of College Coach’s team of college admissions experts. Abigail received her bachelor’s in sociology from Colby College. Prior to joining College Coach, Abigail worked as a senior admissions officer at Reed College and Emma Willard School.